(Parts of this experience will probably show up fictionalized in one of my new Matt Jacob novels.)
Boston, like much of the country, is in the midst of a heat wave. Temperatures have topped 100, a new thing for me even though I’ve lived here for more than thirty years. I’m doing my best to keep cool in a city where cold rules, but this weather brings back memories of the summer month I spent in Oklahoma City researching the Murrah Building bombing for a consortium of lawyers.
First thing I noticed after landing was the oil well digging on airport property. (Had never seen one anywhere before, let alone in such a bizarre location.) The second was the stifling heat, which soaked my shirt while I waited for the van to the rental car office. I’d been hot before but never like this.
And the heat never changed throughout my entire stay. Triple figure digits running like a ticker tape across the television screen night after night, week after week. Walking out of the hotel meant walking into a pizza oven. The only saving grace were the pipes outside bars and restaurants spritzing a light mist of water onto their patio customers. Another thing I’d never before seen.
I wasn’t in Oklahoma City to study the heat, though there was a constant “weather voice” similar to the interior monologue in Peter Gent’s novel North Dallas Forty where his protagonist’s football body aches always danced in his consciousness. I was there because the lawyers, none of whom conspiracy theorists, had received reports that seemed to indicate some kind of Federal foreknowledge of the bombing. They wanted me to discover whether there was any substantive evidence that the government either knew beforehand about the bombing or had actually initiated it. (The latter, something I never and still don’t believe.)
I worked with a local lawyer and his private detective, first to make sense out of all the initial conflicting television news reports which we reviewed: The suspect was an Arab looking man, there was more bombs planted inside the building, the truck bomb had done all the damage, the truck bomb couldn’t have done all that damage, there were one?, two?, three? men in the truck—one contradiction after another.
Despite the pigfuck of reporters who converged on the city the day of the bombing, all anyone actually knew was they were watching a tragedy unfold before their eyes. Bodies were handed from one person to another as they were found in the rubble and taken from the building. Children’s bodies as well as adults since the Murrah housed a daycare center.
When I got there months had passed. The bodies had been buried, funerals and memorial services were over. In fact, by the time I arrived, the building had already been demolished and a chain-linked fence surrounded the city square block hole in ground. Everywhere you looked, the fence was adorned with mementos of those who had died—flowers, dolls, and toys with people still adding to the assemblage. It was another thing I had never seen—a huge, living, evolving memorial to human tragedy. A smaller, but no less painful, dress rehearsal for Ground Zero.
The survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives on that April 19, 1995 had created this memorial. And, during my investigation I interviewed a whole lot of them. Indeed, it was the grandmother of a dead child who first contacted the lawyers. She and her boyfriend had written a 200-page pamphlet that contained the most heinous accusations against the government.
I met with them early in my stay to go over each charge. I had read the entire “book” and tabbed every assertion I felt needed support evidence if there was to be a viable case. There were a ton of tabs. As I began to make my request for evidence, tab after tab, the two of them grew increasingly angry until, after an hour or so, they threw me out of their house. They also contacted the local lawyer and demanded I be run out of town and stop my investigation. The local lawyer asked me what had happened so I showed him my tabbed copy, recounted my questions and their reactions. To his credit, all he said was to take notes (which I’d been doing) and keep on keeping on.
And so I did and had the opportunity to talk with many, many more people about what had actually occurred before that morning, that morning, and the days, weeks, months after. Although there were an incredible amount of contradictions, there was also enough hard information to keep me digging. For example, the sheriff’s video tape of the entire day, which he began shooting about an hour after the bombing (and which I had the opportunity to study) showed a long break in the rescue effort during which people from the bomb squad removed all sorts of weapons and what looked like blocks of C4, a serious explosive. Apparently, besides a daycare center, the building also housed an arsenal. We’ll never know how many people died during that rescue “time out.”
We do know it was against the law to have an arsenal and daycare center in the same building.
But today’s post isn’t about the information I learned during my stay. I’m writing about scorching heat and a blast of sorrow. Truth was, it was a heart wrenching experience. Truth was, whether the government had foreknowledge or not wouldn’t have brought peace to most people with whom I spoke. These peoples’ lives had changed forever and nothing I found would bring back their old lives or those who they had lost. Some had kept their children’s’ rooms as they were on the day of the bombing. Some will never be able to enter a large building without terror. Some won’t be able to work again. And some will gut out the rest of their lives trying to put that horrific day behind.
Which may never happen. Probably won’t. Even though I wasn’t in Oklahoma City on bombing day, even though I wasn’t a victim and did not lose any relatives or children, when the temperature in Boston hits 90, I think of that summer and, in my own silent way, mourn their loss.
“Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.” Joseph Conrad